Waste Not, Want Not: Author Edith Maxwell


Edith Maxwell Garden

What do you suppose is the preferred ingredient for compost? Photo courtesy Edith Maxwell

Mystery author Edith Maxwell knows a lot about dirt, especially the stuff that grows plants. What did you think we were talking about? 😉

Granted, Edith – who learned to drive in the parking lot at the Santa Anita Racecourse — may know some “good dirt,” too, but she’s not telling, not here anyway. However, she will be telling us what natural substance helps make the best dirt for growing plants. A big clue? It involves this blog’s favorite animal.

BTW, Edith is willing to give away a copy of her first book in the series A TINE TO LIVE, A TINE TO DIE to a lucky commenter who posts by 12 am EDT, Tuesday, 5/27/14. This contest is restricted to readers in the continental US due to shipping charges. (Ed. note: Alas, the deadline for the giveaway has passed. A big “thank you” to all who commented! However, even without the contest, keep reading to find out how easy compost is to make.)

Now, take it away, Edith!

Thanks for having me over, Rhonda! I used to be an organic farmer in northeastern Massachusetts, and now I write a murder mystery series set on an organic farm.

Within the world of certified organic farms, composting is key. Creating a good compost and working it into the soil adds nutrients, organic material, and a balance of micro organisms. Soil with plenty of compost in it fosters beneficial insects and disease resistance as well as healthy water management.

I wanted to get composting right, so I studied the ratio of ingredients, how big a pile should be, how often to turn it, and more.

Edith Maxwell organic farmer

Mystery author Edith Maxwell knows all about dirt – and what to do with it.  Photo circa 1993, courtesy Edith Maxwell

What is compost anyway?

Good compost is a mix of nitrogen, carbon, water, and air.

One aspect of the ratio is to have the right mix of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) materials. Green stuff (a technical term, you know) can be fresh grass clippings, pulled green plants, kitchen waste, anything fresh. Brown stuff is dried leaves, hay, anything dried. Layer those two kinds of materials with a sprinkle of water and soil on every layer, and aerobic decomposition starts in.

Compost needs to achieve between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit to kill off weed seeds and harmful organisms. Once it starts to cook, you can turn it every three days if you have the time and energy and it will be ready to go into a growing bed in a couple of weeks. You can stick your hand in the middle of the pile and actually feel the heat. Worms will take up residence and help to break down the mix.

Where horses come in

The best high-nitrogen green stuff is fresh manure from a vegetarian animal. When I was farming, it was easy to find a horse stable that would load up the back of our little pickup truck with manure and bedding. Half the time, it was already starting to cook.

I now have a small home garden and last year I didn’t get around to looking up some horse manure. I noticed that my compost never really heated up and I’ll certainly be finding a source this year.

Horse manure does tend to have a lot of weed seeds, so if the compost doesn’t heat up enough, you can end up introducing weeds to the garden, not what you really want.

Cow, turkey, or chicken manure works, but cow manure tends to be very heavy, and fowl manure can be way too hot. In my pre-farming days, I bought a bag of dried chicken manure and spread it directly on my garden. Oops. The excess of nitrogen burned my seedlings.

The optimal size of a pile is about three feet cubed, or a three-foot-diameter ring of wire, filled up. The pile reduces in size as it cooks down. If you don’t turn it, it eventually breaks down, but forking it over into another ring, bin, or pile adds more air and lets you moisten the layers again.

The compost is finished when the original material has been transformed into a uniform, dark brown, crumbly product with a pleasant, earthy aroma. There may be a few chunks of woody material left; these can be screened out and put back into a new pile. Compost is essential for a good garlic crop and can even go into a homemade potting soil.

Farmers love horse barns. If you own one, see if you can reach out to local gardeners and farmers and set up a collaborative composting venture.

Hey, readers, do you make compost? Successes? Failures? Or would you rather not see where your coffee grounds and eggshells end up? We’d love to hear from you! Add your comments below.

Edith’s next mystery in the series has something to do with dirt

In ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part (Kensington, May 2014), the produce is local – and so is the crime – when long-simmering tensions lead to murder following a festive dinner on Cam Flaherty’s farm. It’ll take a sleuth who knows the lay of the land to catch this killer. But no one ever said Cam wasn’t willing to get her hands dirty.

EdithMaxwellHeadShot)Former organic farmer Edith Maxwell writes the Local Foods Mysteries about farmer Cam Flaherty, a Locavore Club, and locally sourced murder (Kensington Publishing).  She also writes the Speaking of Mystery series (Barking Rain Press, written as Tace Baker), which features Quaker linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau. Edith holds a PhD in linguistics and is a long-time Quaker. She also writes award-winning short crime fiction. A technical writer and fourth-generation Californian, she lives north of Boston with her beau, three cats, and an impressive array of garden statuary.





  • A.M. Metivier
    May 23, 2014

    I find organic gardening fascinating. Horse manure always seemed like a good resource in that horses are not raised for meat or dairy so less chance of exposure to GM feed and hormone treatments that I know I would not want introduced into my soil. How long do you let the manure sit before introducing it to the compost, or does the fact that it is composting as opposed to direct fertilizer placement mean you can avoid that step? I wonder if you have had any experience using guano. I realize bats are insectavores, not vegetarian, but when I was a kid, guano was gold for fertilizer. Have you ever used quano? What is your experience with it?

  • Edith Maxwell
    May 23, 2014

    A.M., thanks for stopping by! Yes, I put horse manure directly into the compost. The hotter it is, the better.

    I have never used bat guano, and I guess you would need to read the package to learn how fresh or aged it is. If it’s aged, you could dig it directly into your garden soil. And yes, it’s supposed to be very rich. Good luck!

  • A.M. Metivier
    May 23, 2014

    Thank you!

  • Rhonda Lane
    May 23, 2014

    Thanks, A.M., for stopping by with a great question!

  • Barbara Tobey
    May 23, 2014

    No wonder my compost pile was less than adequate. No manure.

  • Elizabeth Michaud
    May 23, 2014

    For those of us who have only tried composting a little, and who have no access to horse manure, any suggestions, Edith? Make friends with my local horse owner down the road? Any advice on a good starter set of directions on how to compost? I’m looking for the low-effort approach. :o) Thanks!

  • Edith Maxwell
    May 23, 2014

    You can make it work without manure, Barbara, but I find it’s better with!

  • Rhonda Lane
    May 23, 2014

    I happen to believe everything’s better with horses. 😉 However, I’ll defer to Edith on this matter. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Barbara!

  • Edith Maxwell
    May 23, 2014

    Waving hi to my friend Elizabeth!

    When I had a small home garden (actually, like the one I now again have), I’d take a couple of garbage bags to the horse farm and fill them up with fresh manure. You should ask our mutual friend Jan for some. ;^)

    And see my post above for a general simple primer. It’s not rocket science by any means. Get a ring of wire, or one of those black plastic compost things, or just make a pile in the back corner of your yard. Add all your kitchen scraps except meat and bones. All your grass clippings. Leaves. Some manure if you can find it. Layer it, mix it up, turn it when you can. You know where to find me for questions!

  • Rhonda Lane
    May 23, 2014

    Hi, Elizabeth! Edith’s instructions for making compost sound almost too easy. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and saying “hi.”

  • Katreader
    May 23, 2014

    The stable where my horse boards generally puts up signs towards the end of the year for people to come and take the manure away. I tried composting once…but I know my ratio wasn’t right and I didn’t find the time to fuss with it. Perhaps I can trade Harley’s manure for someone’s finished mulch!

  • Malka Essock
    May 24, 2014

    i can’t wait to get my hands on your organic farming mystery! i’m just plain thrilled that there IS an organic farming mystery!
    i used to just look up horse stables and call and ask could i have some poop? they were usually quite happy to give it away, and i was SO happy to have it. now i just have to keep the chickens from digging up my plants and they supply us with eggs and nice composted poopy bedding…

    • Rhonda Lane
      May 29, 2014

      Congratulations, Malka! You won the book! Keep an eye on your inbox for shipping info, etc.

  • Edith Maxwell
    May 24, 2014

    Katreader, that would be a great trade!

    Thanks so much, Malka. Composted chicken bedding would be a perfect addition to the garden. In my new Local Foods mystery, ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part, farmer Cam gets rescue chickens! I loved doing that research.

  • Rhonda Lane
    May 24, 2014

    What a great idea for barter, Katreader! Manure for mulch! Thanks for stopping by and chiming in.

    Great way to recycle that renewable resource, Malka – chicken poop! You don’t have to drive over to get it, just move it from one place to another. Win, win. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  • Elizabeth Michaud
    May 25, 2014

    Hi, Edith! Your easy composting primer and everyone’s enthusiastic and helpful suggestions here have *almost* convinced me to start a compost pile. There are several lovely horses a couple miles down the road, whom I have photographed several times. Asking for horse manure and volunteering to clean it out myself would probably be a good way to make friends with the horse owner. Thanks, everybody! Can’t wait to read your latest book, Edith!

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